Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Not Now

The Obama administration’s decision to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell shows how little civilians respect the military. Ken Allard on the danger of the repeal.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell may be a policy whose time has come and gone. But several small details are worth remembering: that we are fighting two wars, that changing the policy on gays will inevitably affect basic values vital to any combat organization, and that our collective national debt to the American soldier is already high enough.

When President Obama announced the incipient policy change during last week’s State of the Union address, I was mentoring a group of Army officers, most of them sandwiched between multiple combat tours. They simply shrugged. Other concerns were far more immediate: how to survive their next encounters with the Taliban and IED, how to insure that their marriages and families can survive another yearlong separation. One captain had already survived four combat deployments and will shortly return for a fifth. A former Marine had been half of a father-son sniper team during some of Iraq’s heaviest fighting. As always, our soldiers will simply salute and find a way to cope with whatever policy is mandated.

[Soldiers] are asked to fight on behalf of a populace that does little to help or understand them while requiring uncritical acceptance of civilian values.

But they instinctively understand the hypocrisy that often accompanies high-minded talk about social injustice. They are asked to fight on behalf of a populace that does little to help or understand them while requiring uncritical acceptance of civilian values. After we ended the draft in 1973, we continued to draft dollars, so we could send other people’s kids to Kabul and Kandahar, most of them more than once. In my 2006 book, Warheads, I pointed out that Americans are more likely to know a resident of North Dakota than a soldier on active duty. (Both populations numbering about 600,000). The less-than-upwardly mobile go into combat while the offspring of the privileged classes go to Yale, Harvard or Columbia. Irony of ironies, some Ivy League faculties even ban ROTC from their campuses, citing the policy on gay service as their rationale. (Simple cowardice would be a more honest if troubling admission.)

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Even after discounting uneven sacrifice, there is no way to banish our blissful national ignorance about the unique demands of military life. When male enlistments lagged in the late '70s, we made it easier for women to serve in a broad range of Army specialties, some indistinguishable from combat. Well-meaning outsiders applauded but few understood the reverse multiplier effect of a soldier getting pregnant in a combat zone. Basically, another soldier must take her place, plus the administrative overhead of transfers on both ends. So when a hard-pressed Army commander recently announced courts martial for any pregnant soldier, knowledgeable people understood his actions as an inevitable downside of integrating women in combat. The outraged popular reaction: far less kind.

The unforeseen complications of integrating women should serve as cautionary tales for politicians who believe that changing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will be a simple matter. The military is an organic and profoundly interconnected community where you never enjoy the luxury of changing just one thing, even during peaceful times. This is especially true on matters as intensely personal as human sexuality, always a continuing compromise with the traditional military values of uniformity, cohesion, and self-sacrifice. Basically, you put the Band of Brothers first: your natural desires a distant second (gay or straight, licit or illicit).

American society, more accepting of gay rights than ever before, seems to think that a stroke of the pen can allow gays to serve openly–possibly accompanied by a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya” or “We Are the World.” Advocates for that change often cite the example of military establishments in other countries that can apparently afford to lose a war or two. Nagging issues–like unit cohesion in combat, partner benefits, new norms of sexual harassment or even a basic re-definition of the military family–have thus far been left unexamined. At what point will those foreseeable consequences become “a bridge too far”? While American society may be badly out of step with our military, we usually operate from a bedrock of common sense—an instinctive understanding that military sociology is a fundamentally different animal. And that tinkering with it in the midst of two wars is a remarkably silly thing to do.

Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia. He wrote the military review of the U.S. engagement in Somalia. His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as an on-air military analyst with NBC News.